December 16, 2016 will go down in history as one of the landmarks in the history of the Disability Rights Movement in India. After years of discussions, deliberations, debates, and dissent over replacing the Persons with Disability Act 1995 with a new one, the Rights of Persons with Disability Bill was passed by the Lok Sabha on that day, after being passed by the Rajya Sabha two days before.
This historic legislation will directly affect at least 26.8 million differently-abled persons in the country. “At least,” because that figure is from the 2011 population census; World Bank data suggests that the actual count might be as high as 80 million. Either way, India has one of the largest disabled populations in the world, even greater than the total population of many countries. This bill was a much awaited one as it had been pending in Parliament since 2014. Now that the bill has been passed, it has provided some relief to all the disability rights groups that have been demanding this for years.
However, it has also raised many questions about how the media covered the passage of this bill. Given the sheer size of the disabled population in India, one would have expected that the Indian media would cover this extensively and deeply — even more so because this was the only bill to have been passed by Parliament in the nearly washed-out winter session.
But the media organizations showed little interest in analyzing the bill or even showing telecasts of the discussion of the bill. Most news channels just briefly mentioned the passage of the bill; some only ran a one-line news ticker on the screen. Anyone who hoped that maybe one of the news channels would hold a panel discussion with disability rights experts, academics, and researchers over this historic legislation in primetime was disappointed, as the news channels continued to showcase the petty politics of demonetization in India.
The point is not that discussion over demonetization is not important; of course it is. However, shouldn’t the media have focused their attention on the bill, even for just a day? The print media was only slightly better as most of them covered the passage just as a news report. None of them analyzed the bill deeply. The pros and cons of the 58 amendments in the bill were left undiscussed. When the bill was passed in the Rajya Sabha, not a single newspaper put this as its front page headline. Only the online media showed some hope, with some good analytical pieces on the bill.
Media houses may argue that it is their prerogative to decide what to discuss at length and what to focus on. This is true, but their focus shows that disability rights are not on their “priority list” and never were. Disabled people are the most marginalized and invisible section of Indian society; they are also one of the largest minority groups in the country. In this ratings-driven world, media organizations chose to cover topics that will grab more eyeballs. They know that a very large percentage of the differently-abled population don’t have access to their channels or their newspapers and hence that population doesn’t matter much to media executives. This low coverage of disability-related issues is a chronic problem, not just a one-off case.
Even during the last two years, when the bill was pending in the parliament, there was close to no coverage of the bill. Barring a few reports (which could be counted on one’s fingers), the media turned a blind eye to this important legislation. Compare this to the amount of time the media devoted to the Lokpal anti-corruption bill, the Goods and Services Tax Bill or Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) reforms and it’s easy to how ignorant Indian media, at least mainstream media, has been with regards to the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill.
The lack of discussion and analysis of the bill shows the lack of knowledge as well as interest in disability among journalists. When some news channels do cover “disability,” they either do it in a form of a campaign (showing that their news team spent a day with children with disabilities in some NGO) or in a soft interest story about how a differently-abled person is overcoming his or her disability by doing something extraordinary that even able-bodied people find difficult to do (e.g, painting with legs or sketching by holding a pencil in the mouth).
These are extremely patronizing attitudes on display. Such stories are charity-based and have quite a myopic vision of disability, where they try to portray a person with disability in “extreme” circumstances. The person is shown to either be extraordinary or extremely dependent on others; media houses refrain from showing differently-abled people as normal human beings. This is because Indian society at large see persons with disabilities as “the other.” This “othering” of millions of differently-abled people is a reason for such an attitude in newspapers and on TV.
People in the media are also the products of society, but a better understanding of society is expected from them as compared to the rest of the masses. Media outlets are the watchdogs for society. But the mainstream media has time and again failed in covering disability. Indian media didn’t even properly cover the Paralympics this year, though the Indian contingent won four medals, including two golds, a silver, and a bronze. As of today, there is not even a single journalist who covers just “disability,” a huge issue area where a lot of great stories could be covered. Yet every media house has at least one cinema reporter.
Secondly, the near-zero representation of differently-abled people in media itself is quite astonishing. There has not been any study regarding how many differently-abled journalists there are in India. I wonder whether the number would even cross the single-digit mark. Viewers thus do not see any differently-abled reporters or a news anchor with any disability in India.
Media organizations won’t be sensitized about disability unless they themselves start hiring people with disabilities as journalists. This would surely impact the newsroom environment and it would give a chance for an “alternative voice” to come out and make its mark — not just on disability but on different issues as well.
Lastly, those who consider disability a non-issue or as an issue which can be ignored or put on the backburner, must remember that anyone can become disabled at any time. Able bodies are only temporary and not permanent, making disability an issue that should truly concern everyone.
Martand Jha is a Junior Research Fellow at the Center for Russian and Central Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.